Alexei Pavlovich (1844-1873) and Olga Alexandrovna Fedchenko (1845-1921)
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- 1876 Lev Feofanovich Kostenko (1841-1891)
- 1877 Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov (1850-1902)
- 1878 Vasily Fedorovich Oshanin (1844-1917)
- 1878 P.G. Matveyev
- 1878 Nicolai Alekseevich Severtsov (1827-1885)
1871 Alexei Pavlovich (1844-1873) and Olga Alexandrovna Fedchenko (1845-1921)
Already prior to the annexation of Kokand, Russian researchers had penetrated the Pamirs. In 1868,
with the encouragement of the Russian authorities, Alexei Pavlovich Fedchenko and his wife Olga
Alexandrovna travelled to Tashkent – a coach journey of 53 days – and began their expeditions to
Turkestan with the exploration of Samarkand, Penjikent, the Zerafshan valley and Hissar (including
the Fan Mountains and Iskanderkul Lake), the Kyzyl Kum Desert and the Ferghana valley.
Alexei and Olga Fedchenko (
In 1871, they were on the northern edge of the Pamirs. There they were dazzled by the spectacular
peaks opposite them on the other side of the Alai Valley. Fedchenko called this range the Trans-Alai
and identified what was for some time believed to be the highest peak in the Pamirs and named it
after the Governor-General of Turkestan, Kaufmann; this name remained until it became Lenin Peak
in 1928 and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) Peak in 2006.
Ibn Sina Peak and the Trans-Alai range (1998
From local informants in Kokand, Fedchenko gleaned information about the hitherto unexplored region
of Darwaz and its chief settlement, Kala-i-Khum, also known as Iskander Sindona (“Alexander’s
prison”). He also learned that Darwaz included a territory beyond Karategin known as “Wachia” by
ancient geographers that had sometimes been confused with the Wakhan in the south.
Mittheilungen des Vereins für Erdkunde zu Leipzig, 1872, pp. 7-8. The territory known by the ancient geographers as “Wachia” is still known
locally as “Wachio”.
Fedchenko’s report to the Imperial Russian Geographical Society (IRGS) in December 1871
a sensation, as it was the first report by a Russian on the Pamirs and was considered as equivalent
in importance to the discovery of the sources of the Nile. Having seen the chain of high mountains
running along the south of the Alai valley, Fedchenko felt confident in confirming the hypothesis of
a vast plateau behind them. He reported the information given him by the local inhabitants that there
were two Pamirs: the “little” Pamir (“Pamir-Khurd”) that he supposed to be the area around Zorkul
(visited by John Wood in 1838
); he suggested that the “great” Pamir (“Pamir-i-Kalan”) was to be
found directly behind the Transalai range.
View of the Transalai range from Sary Tash (1995)
After Fedchenko’s untimely death in the French Alps in 1873, his research was continued by his
widow Olga, a remarkable woman who overcame many male prejudices against her participation
in her husband’s expeditions by her professionalism and scientific competence. It was Olga who
prepared for publication all the materials collected during their travels in Central Asia (Путешествие
в Туркестан - Travel to Turkestan, Moscow 1875).
In 1900, together with their son Boris, she finally fulfilled her husband’s ambition to travel to the
Pamirs. Their stay in Shughnan led to the publication by the Academy of Sciences of extensive
studies on the flora of the Pamirs in 1901, 1905 and 1906. She died in 1921, leaving more than
sixty scientific publications under her name and with the distinctions of correspondent member of
the Russian Academy of Sciences and honorary member of the French Société de Géographie, the
Boston Academy of Science and the International Academy of Botanical Geography – truly one of the
foremost women scientists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her name lives on in the
designation by the Leningrad Botanical Garden of the Central Asian plant Olgaea Iljin.
13 Summarised by de Khanikoff in the Bulletin de la Société de Géographie (BSG), 1872, pp. 60-64.
14 See Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, op.cit., pp. 337-348.
The Russians in the Great Game
In October 1875, the Russian forces under Mikhail Dmitriyevich
Skobelev defeated the rebel Khan of Kokand and, in 1876, Russia
annexed the Khanate of Kokand.
In July 1876, Skobelev sent a military expedition to subdue
marauding Kyrgyz tribes on their summer pastures in the Alai. The
expedition included Captain Lev Feofanovich Kostenko (1841-
1891) - for geographical and statistical studies; Vasily Fedorovich
Oshanin - as the mission’s naturalist – see below; A. R. Bonsdorf
- as surveyor; and eight topographers under Lebedev (among them
Korostovstsev and Zhilin).
Three columns were formed to travel to the Alai by different routes.
Kostenko, Oshanin and Bonsdorf were sent to Gulcha to catch up
with the column led by Prince F.K. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg,
a colonel on the Turkestan General Staff. Wittgenstein had been
sent by Skobelev to catch Abdul Beg, a rebel Kyrgyz leader, over
the Kyzyl Art pass to Kara Kul and was thus the first European
to see the lake. Some of his officers returned to camp shortly
afterwards and reported that the Kara Kul was so high that “many
of the men bled from the nose, while several of them fainted away.” Skobelev, who had just received
the submission of the Kyrgyz in the Russian camp, despatched another group to assist Wittgenstein at
Kara Kul and ordered Kostenko to accompany it.
Prince F.K. Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg with Kyrgyz escort
Crossing the Kyzyl Art pass on 14 August, Kostenko explored Karakul and noted that
A rude piercing wind blows daily from the north, beginning at 2 or 3 p.m. I never experienced more
violent gusts. The hard sandstone exposed to the wind is strongly affected by it. Some of the rocks are
perfectly drilled. In spite of the violent gusts of wind, I ascended to the top of the highest elevation,
and was well rewarded for my pains. A magnificent scene opened to the view. The mountain circle
seemed to spring directly from out of the water, proudly looking at its own reflection in the glassy lake
whose blue waters lave the feet of the heights.
A scout had been sent on to seek information on the whereabouts of Abdul Beg and returned with a
report that he had already escaped to Afghanistan. Since no order had yet been received to return to
the Alai, Wittgenstein authorised Kostenko to undertake an exploratory expedition to the regions of
Rang Kul and Sarikol.
The expedition, comprising Kostenko, Lebedev, Bonsdorf and fifteen horsemen, left Kara Kul on
18 August. From the Uzbel pass (4,651m) they were able to confirm Humboldt’s hypothesis of the
existence of a north-south range of mountains bordering the Pamirs on the east (the Kongur and
- see footnote 2.
Kara Kul north shore (1998)
The Russians in the Great Game
Mustagh Ata massif), that
George Hayward had seen from
Kashgar in 1869
estimated their height more
correctly than Hayward,
at 25,000 feet. They had
underestimated the distances
to be covered, however, and
shortage of food forced the
expedition to return before
being able to explore Rang Kul.
A further expedition with
Prince Wittgenstein took
Kostenko to Daroot Kurgan in
the western Alai valley, where
there was a fort established by
the Khan of Kokand to keep a watchful eye on the nomadic Kyrgyz in the valley. Wittgenstein sent
Kostenko on a reconnaissance across the Kyzyl Su and up the Min Teke river to the Ters Agar pass
where he discovered an ancient
shrine (Altyn Mazar), identified
the three confluents of the Muk
Su (Sauksai, Kaindy and Selsu)
and saw glaciers and high peaks
The expedition moved on
to Karamyk to discuss the
delimitation of frontiers
with an envoy of the Shah
of Karategin, and returned
through Shakhimardan to
Kokand at the end of September
1876. They had mapped, at
a scale of 2 versts
inch, 3,700 square versts of
what Kostenko described as
“the most interesting and least known portion of the Pamir upland.” In 1880 Kostenko’s account
of his work was published in St. Petersburg under the title Туркестанский край. Опыт военно-
статистического обозрения Туркестанского военного округа [The Turkestan frontier: Report on
the military-statistical overview of the Turkestan military district].
Kostenko comments, correctly, that “I am the first European who has obtained a sight of the headwaters
16 George Hayward, ‘Journey from Leh to Yarkand and Kashgar, and Exploration of the Sources of the Yarkand River’, Journal of the Royal
Geographical Society (JRGS), Vol. 40 (1870), pp. 33-166.
17 1 verst = 1.0668 km
View of Mustagh Ata from Kulma (1998)
Fort in Daroot Kurgan (1999)
of the Muk Su river.” What he did not know was that the glacier arms he saw from there were part of
the glacier system later named after Fedchenko. No European would actually set foot on the glacier
for another two years and it would not be fully explored until 1928.
1877 Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov (1850-1902)
Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov was born in Alekseyevskoi on the
Don. In 1866, the Russian College of Mining began research
into the coal resources of the Donetsk basin and began recruiting
promising students from the area for training as geologists. After
starting his studies in the faculty of history and letters at St.
Petersburg, Mushketov was selected for an army scholarship and
transferred to the College of Mining under Professor Romanovsky,
and graduated in 1872 with a first class degree. Geology was to
become his consuming passion.
In 1873, on Romanovsky’s recommendation, he was attached
to the Russian General Staff in Turkestan, where other famous
names had preceded him: Semyonov Tienshansky, Severtsov (see
below) and Fedchenko. None before him, however, had had specific responsibility for geological and
geographical surveying. Expeditions to the western Tian Shen, the Syr-Darya, the Zerafshan valley
and western Ferghana led him to the conclusion that the proper study of the geology of Central Asia
necessitated an understanding of its mountain systems and, in particular, the Pamirs.
In 1875, he explored the Tien-Shan and, for his work there, was elected a full member of the IRGS and
was awarded its silver medal. In 1877 he travelled from the Alai to explore the Muk Su valley and got
a glimpse of the glacier above it. Returning to the Alai valley, he went into the Pamirs as far as Kara
Kul, but had to cut short his explorations because of the unsettled situation in neighbouring Kashgar,
where Chinese forces were attempting to wrest power from the Kokandian adventurer Yakub Beg. In
1878, he explored the upper Alai valley, the Kyzyl Su and the geology of the central Tienshan range
up to Chatyrkul.
Mushketov concluded, from their geology, that the Pamirs were once on the seabed.
If we could go back in time to the period of the tertiary deposits, we would see instead of the present
mountains an entirely different picture. Where there are now the massifs of the Pamirs there was then
a stormy sea which extended far to the West, probably as far as the Caspian, and, to the east, covered
all of East Turkestan and the deserts of Gobi and Mongolia, the Hanhai of the Chinese. In this sea
only here and there would we be able to see some island formations... At the end of the tertiary period,
these island masses were mainly to be found where are now the Pamirs: they increased in volume and
began to stand apart as mountain ridges. In the process of drainage the sea receded, and the Pamirs
area became more and more prominent and formed a land mass protruding from the sea; its height
increased, but not so high that life was extinguished, for we must suppose that at that time the climate
18 Source for much of this section:
Ivan Vasilievitch Mushketov
The Russians in the Great Game
on the Pamirs was more temperate than now, and plant and animal life incomparably richer.
... Finally the sea gradually recedes, and as the land is drained and raised, the upper parts of the Pamirs
become less accessible, less suitable for life and more deserted: the fauna moves to more hospitable
ground and humans gradually descend in search of better refuge, following the path of the waters, so
to say, and are spread across the continent in proportion to the retreat of the sea.
Mushketov and Romanovsky produced the first geological map of Turkestan (30 versts to the inch) in
1881. The first volume of Mushketov’s Туркестан. Геологическое и орографическое описание по
данным, собранным во время путешествий с 1874 по 1880 гг. [Turkestan: Description of Geology
and Relief on the Basis of Data Collected during Travels in 1874-80] was published in 1886 and led
to a much better understanding of the mountain system of the Pamirs. For this work, he received the
Makarev prize of the Academy of Sciences and an award from the Russian Mineralogical Society. In
1887 he studied the causes and effects of the great earthquake that devastated Verny (Almaty) and,
shortly before his death, was involved in the extension of the Trans-Siberian railway.
He died of pneumonia in 1902, and the second volume of Turkestan was published posthumously in
1906. It was republished in 1915 with additions and notes from subsequent scientific explorations
and was a major work of reference for the next generation of researchers of Central Asia. He was also
the author of a work in French, Les Richesses Minérales du Turkestan Russe [The mineral wealth
of Russian Turkestan], published in Paris in 1878. He received the highest award of the IRGS – the
Konstantinov medal – and was made an honorary member of the Vienna Geographical Society. A
glacier in the Tien-Shan range in Kyrgyzstan is named after him.
In his obituary, V.F.Oshanin (see the next section) wrote:
The seven best and most productive years of the scientist’s life were devoted to geological research of
our outer regions, and these works gave him widespread and well-deserved fame... People possessing
such abilities, with such energy and love of their work, are not frequently encountered in the scientific
community: the death of such an outstanding scientist, at the age of only 52, is a heavy and irreplace-
able loss for science and for all humanity.
Vasily Fedorovich Oshanin was born in Lipetsk Oblast south of Moscow. He entered the faculty
of physics and mathematics at the university of Moscow at the age of seventeen and graduated in
natural history in 1865. After beginning his career as a teacher, he was sent to Turkestan in 1872 by
the Ministry of State Properties to study silk-making and took up a teaching position at the Tashkent
school of silk manufacture and later became the secretary of the Turkestan section of the IRGS.
As we have seen, Oshanin was in the Alai in 1876 as part of Skobelev’s mission and in 1878 he returned
as the head of a scientific expedition put together by the Moscow ‘Imperial Association of Friends of
19 ‘Памир и Алай’ [Pamir and Alai], in Живописная Россия [Picturesque Russia], Русская Средняя Азия [Russian Central Asia], St.Petersburg-
Moscow, 1885, pp. 299-322. Mushketov’s conclusion explains the presence of coral in the Eastern Pamirs, used in traditional jewellery
the Natural Sciences’ (Императорское общество любителей естествознания, антропологии и
этнографии), that – in addition to Oshanin as entomologist – included Fedchenko, the topographer
G.E. Rodionov and the botanist M.J. Nevessky. Leaving Samarkand in July 1877, the expedition
reached the Karategin in April 1878. In Jayilgan, just above the junction of the Muk Su with the
Kyzyl Su (‘red river’ in Kyrgyz - further downstream it is known by the Tajik equivalent ‘Surkhob’),
Oshanin noted some very high peaks to the south-east to which he gave numbers, leaving it to others
to give them names. The easternmost and highest (to which he gave the number 1) he estimated at
about 25,000 feet. Not long afterwards, the Russians named several of Oshanin’s numbered peaks
in honour of contemporary explorers and scientists: Severtsov (see below); Jean Louis Rodolphe
Agassiz, US naturalist born in Switzerland (1807-1873); and John Tyndall, Irish physicist, naturalist
and educator (1820-1893) – evidence of a world where the scientific community was still truly global
and not divided by ideology.
Unable to travel with loaded animals up the
valley of the Muk Su, the expedition continued
up the Kyzyl Su as far as the Min Teke river
and followed it to Altyn Mazar. From there they
were able to ascend to the tongue of the great
glacier at about 3,000m, which they named
after Oshanin’s friend Fedchenko, and explored
the Seldara river and the little Tanimas glacier.
In his report, Oshanin estimated the length of
the Fedchenko glacier at some twenty versts
(the 1928 Russo-German scientific expedition
measured it more accurately at 77 km,
confirming it as the longest mountain glacier in
It was originally intended that the expedition
would attempt to travel from the upper Muk Su
to look for a way into Shughnan and explore
Yashilkul. The narrow rock-strewn valley
of the Belandkiik was impossible to pass on
horseback, however, and, after only 15 km, with
several of his party suffering from illness, the
expedition was forced to turn back. From local
Kyrgyz, Oshanin learned that their preferred
route to Murghab was up the Kaindy river and over the pass of the same name (4,822m). It was,
however, still covered in deep snow from the preceding heavy winter and an attempt to cross it was
out of the question. The expedition came down to the Alai and returned to Tashkent via Gulcha and
A map showing their route was drawn up by Rodionov and published in Petermann’s Geographische
Mittheilungen in 1882.
Oshanin (top left) with Fedchenko (centre) and other “Friends of the
Natural Sciences” (
The Russians in the Great Game
The map showing Oshanin’s route also showed part of the route of a Russian expedition later the
same year to left-bank Badakhshan under the leadership of Colonel P.G. Matveyev. This expedition
included the German director of the Tashkent observatory, Schwartz, a surveyor, Lieutenant Trotsky,
and a zoologist, Rusov. After crossing the Oxus near Kulob, they were first stopped in Rostaq on
orders of the Afghan government and then taken over a very difficult mountain route to Faizabad
where the late season forced them to abandon their intention of visiting Kafiristan and to return to
Samarkand through Taloqan, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. The unusual route forced on them by their
Afghan ‘hosts’ across the central mountains of Badakhshan enabled them, however, to map hitherto
unexplored territory and add considerably to the data on the region collected by British and ‘native’
explorers (the ‘pundits’).
By the time he undertook his exploration of the Pamirs, Nikolai
Severtsov was already a seasoned and famous traveller. Privately
educated, he entered the faculty of physics and mathematics of
Moscow university at the age of only 16 and began zoological
research in his home province of Voronezh, completing his Master’s
degree in 1855. Shortly afterwards he was sent on a scientific
expedition to the lower reaches of the Syr-Darya. This work was
not without danger, as he was attacked and badly wounded early
in the mission by marauding bands from Kokand, who carried him
off to Turkestan. Freed after a month in captivity, he took up his
research work in the field almost immediately.
In 1864 he was attached to the staff of General Chernyaev at the
time of the latter’s assaults on Chimkent and Tashkent and, in the
period 1865-68, made expeditions to the Syr-Daria region, the Tien Shan, lake Issyk-Kul and Khujand.
The results of these expeditions were published in 1873 (Путешествия по Туркестанскому краю
и исследования горной страны Тянь-Шаня [Travels in Turkestan and research in the high Tian
for which he was awarded an honorary degree of doctor of zoology at Moscow university, the
Litke gold medal of the IRGS and the gold medal of the Paris International Geographical Congress.
On Kaufmann’s instructions, he made a first attempt to reach the Pamirs at the end of 1877, hard
on the heels of Mushketov’s expedition to the Alai. The expedition, under the command of Captain
Skorniakov, included - in addition to Severtsov - Schwarz, head of the Tashkent observatory, the
cartographer Skassi and the botanist and entomologist Captain Kushakievich.
They left Tashkent
20 See ‘Поездка но бухарским и афганским владен полковника Матвеева’ [Colonel Metveyev’s Travels in Bukhara and Afghanistan] in Сборник
географических, топографических и статистических материалов по Азии [Collection of Geographical and Statistical materials on Asia], Issue
V, Military Scientific Committee of the Russian General Staff, St. Petersburg 1883 (
); also BSG, Paris, 1879, pp. 527-9. For the
pundits, see Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, op.cit., pp. 348-368; and Hermann Kreutzmann, Wakhan Quadrangle: Exploration and espionage during
arrogant attitude of their masters.
22 George Nathaniel Curzon, ‘The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus’, The Geographical Journal (GJ), Vol. 8-1, 1896, p. 80.
Nicolai Alekseevich Severtsov
on 30 September and, travelling via Osh and Gulcha, reaching the Alai on 26 October. At the Kyzyl
Art Pass they encountered severe weather conditions, and were forced to return to Osh, not entirely
without results since Severtsov had collected many specimens, Skassi had been able to measure
fifteen mountain peaks and Schwarz had made several measurements of terrestrial coordinates.
Markansu (“Death”) valley near the Kyzyl Art pass (1993)
The next year, Severtsov put together another expedition, that started research in the Ferghana Valley
and reached the Alai on 27 July. After a few days’ independent research, the scientists met up at Kara
Kul on 12 August and continued together beyond Kara Kul into unexplored territory in the eastern
Pamirs: Rang Kul, Murghab, Alichur and Yashilkul – and, as Severtsov put it in the report of the
expedition, “made the first comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and thorough research of the Pamir and
finally determined its orography and scientific geography in relation to the Tian Shen.”
Unfortunately, a caravan bringing food was plundered en route by local Kyrgyz and the team had
to cut short its work before reaching the Great Pamir and Zorkul. They returned to Ferghana on 26
September, bringing back specimens of 20,000 plants (representing some 1,000 different species), 60
mammals, 350 birds and 20 fish. Their work filled in many blanks in knowledge of the Pamirs and
permitted major improvements in the maps produced by the Russian General Staff. In 1880, Severtsov
published a map (Карта Памира и сопредельных стран, дополненной по съемкам топографа
23 In the Turkic languages, appropriately, kyzyl means ‘red’.
- see footnote 2.
The Russians in the Great Game
supplemented by the surveys of the topographer Skassi] - 30 versts to the inch) that showed the main
mountain ranges and valleys of the Pamirs and the subdivision between the different principalities of the
Pamirs (Karategin, Darwaz, Rushan, Badakhshan, Shughnan) and the historico-geographical areas of
the Pamirs (Alichur, Khargush,
Great, Little, Rang Kul,
Sarikol, Sarez). A map showing
Severtsov’s route was also
published in Petermann’s
Like his contemporary Pyotr
Semyonov - who explored
the Tien Shan and was later
permitted by Imperial decree
to add the word Tienshansky to
his name - Severtsov enjoyed
a high reputation during his
lifetime and he had hardly
returned from the Pamirs in
1878 when he was awarded
the Imperial gold medal for his
work there. It was, however, his
last expedition. He was still cataloguing and writing up his collections of specimens and giving
lectures at Moscow university and the IRGS when, in 1885, he was the victim of an accident in which
his carriage broke through thin ice on a river near his home. The complete results of his work were
published posthumously in 1886 by the IRGS.
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